“Please tell us,” Myrande Shipbrook asked, her baby teeth lisping the words slightly.
“Yes. Tell us,” Roisart Connall chimed in. Though less than a year older than the castellan’s daughter, he took her request and made it his own.
“Tell us at once!” Luthias, Roisart’s twin brother, agreed.
Morwyn Shipbrook smiled at the children over her needlepoint. She had a very good idea what they wanted to know about, since it was only ten days away and already there had been occasional scratches of shrieking and argument in the late afternoon dusk and evening darkness. “Tell you what?” she asked, nonetheless.
“Why we have the Night of Souls,” Luthias burst out.
“What?” Luthias turned innocently to his brother.
“Sable was supposed to ask,” Roisart reminded him. “She’s *her* mother.”
Luthias shrugged. “She’s our aunt.”
“Roisart’s right,” Morwyn settled the latter part of the dispute. “But if you all want to know an answer, it doesn’t much matter who asks the question.”
“But I wanted to know *first*!” Sable complained, and pointed at the brothers Connall. “And *they* don’t know. Luthias says it’s so that brave young knights can go outside and fight demons and ghosts and other things.” She put her hands on her hips. “But if that’s what it’s for, why does he stay inside with the rest of us?”
“Because our father orders him to,” Roisart explained.
“Not this year,” Luthias threatened.
“He did too!”
“I didn’t hear a thing –”
“Luthias.” Morwyn again decided to head off the impending argument. “If you go forth into the darkness during the Night of Souls, who will be left inside to protect Sable and me?”
Luthias gave her a quizzical look. “You have Sir Lucan,” he pointed out.
“And would you leave him to it all by himself?”
“And Roisart, and my father,” Luthias continued.
“But if you bravely went out to do battle with the monsters,” Morwyn insisted, “don’t you think that they’d all want to go with you?”
“No,” Roisart decided. “Not me.”
Morwyn gave him a dirty look. “You’re not helping me,” she said.
“And Father wouldn’t either,” Roisart continued. Morwyn sighed.
“Sir Lucan might,” Luthias admitted, considering the idea.
“And if you let anything happen to him, I would never forgive you.” Morwyn congratulated herself on managing to say this with complete seriousness.
“But he’s a brave knight and can take care of –”
“But what *is* the Night of Souls?” Sable asked.
“It’s the night that we celebrate the ending of winter,” Morwyn told her quickly. “And we look forward to the coming of spring and longer days and new growth in the fields and forests –”
“No it’s not!!” Roisart exclaimed. “It’s just as cold the first of Mertz as it is the last few days of Vibril! Last year, it was colder.”
“You remember that, do you?” Morwyn murmured.
“And it’s not much greener the next morning, either.”
“*He* says the Night of Souls is when all the dead people get to come back again,” Sable explained, pointing at Roisart.
“Uh huh,” Roisart agreed. “And there’s ghosts all over –”
“And ghouls –” Luthias added.
“– and the bodies come crawling out of the graveyards –” Roisart threw himself on the ground and began crawling.
“And then they catch rats and chew on them ’cause they’re hungry,” Luthias said, as Roisart grabbed a phantom rat and planted his teeth in it. “And they dance around on the hedges like …” He looked at Roisart for help.
Roisart didn’t move. “Go ahead,” he said.
“I don’t know what they dance like!” Luthias shouted.
“Then why’d you say they did?”
“What else do they do?”
“They hunt for people!!” Roisart shouted. “They look for us ’cause the rats aren’t big enough and they don’t like us because we’re still alive and they wish that they were still alive too.”
Sable turned from watching the boys and asked Morwyn, “Is that what the Night of Souls is about, Mama?”
“Sure,” Luthias said. “That’s why people get together in their homes and castles.”
“Masters and servants all at one fire –” Roisart recited.
“And they build a big fire in the hearth –”
“And they make sure there’s some green wood in the fire, because that way, the fire is on the side of the living and not the dead,” Roisart added again. “Cousin Clifton says so,” he added.
“And we shut all the doors and lock them and don’t let anyone in once it gets dark,” Luthias said. “Because if we did, it probably wouldn’t be a person after all. It’d probably be a monster who just looked like a person but really wanted to get you!” He lunged suddenly at Myrande.
But the girl just glared at him. “You tried that already,” she stated.
“Worked the first time.”
Myrande turned to her mother. “And then in the morning, we make a whole lot of noise, so the monsters know the night’s over and they have to go home?” she asked.
“It’s at dawn,” Roisart specified. “And we yell and bang pots and swords and stuff in case the monsters are trying to be deaf –” He glanced at his brother. “– like Luthias.”
“I sing that song just fine!” Luthias exclaimed, misunderstanding Roisart’s meaning. Perhaps a little tentatively about the pitch, he launched the chorus, “Ohhh, get you gone –”
Roisart silenced him with a jab to the stomach and a wrestling match began.
Myrande watched until the first fall and then remembered her mission. “Is that what the Night of Souls is for?” she asked Morwyn.
Morwyn gazed at her daughter, deciding what the best answer to the question was. She had never encountered a ghost herself, at least not a hateful spirit that was alloted only the one night of the year to try to unleash some long-festering rage. She doubted that the fields and roads of Dargon were crowded with fell creatures on that particular night. She was aware that the Night was treated more casually by braver or more reckless sorts in the cities of Baranur. Like those sophisticates, perhaps, she doubted. But she also allowed that to be alone outside on that particular night was likely more perilous than on any other night of the year. Something there was or some things there were that did receive more license to sow evil or death on that night — she couldn’t quite say that that was impossible and she had heard of some things that had happened on that particular night. They were things she didn’t want to believe but couldn’t say with conviction hadn’t happened. Morwyn watched her waiting daughter; she did want to encourage her Sable to stay by the fire when the Night of Souls was passing.
Morwyn shook herself. “It’s for keeping company,” she suggested to her daughter. “It’s for enjoying the fire together and sharing stories.”
“Uh huh!” Luthias agreed, he and Roisart having concluded their bout when Morwyn finally spoke. “Ghost stories.”
“And creeping things,” Roisart nodded. “Slithering up your bedpost with fangs that drip ichor.” He pronounced the last word carefully and Morwyn wondered just what young Clifton Dargon had been teaching his younger cousins. Roisart smiled at Myrande. “And the highwayman that was hung at the crossroads, but not quite for long enough and the dogs gnawed off only one of his feet and now you can hear his step on the stairs outside your room. Step, drag. Step, drag. Step drag, until he’s right outside your door and you hear the latch click because it’s not locked; not any more. And the door creaks open, creeeeeee –”
“Stop it!” Myrande yelled.
“That’s an old one, Sable,” Morwyn murmured. “I remember years ago when my brother, Bernar, told it to me. I couldn’t sleep alone for months afterwards.”
“Really?” Myrande asked. “Huh. It’s not *that* scary.”
“No, I suppose not,” Morwyn agreed. “But try it by a fire late at night with everything you can see dim in flickering light, and while a toasted yam is sitting heavy in your stomach. And listening to the teller’s voice getting softer and softer and softer…” She fell silent.
“Until the end?” Roisart finally asked.
Morwyn nodded. “Of course,” she agreed. “Until the shout at the end.”
“But they’re all just stories,” Luthias declared. “Right? We tell them on the Night of Souls because it’s fun.”
“Cousin Clifton says it’s also supposed to be a way of honoring the dead,” Roisart said. “Because we’re remembering them.”
“Who wants to remember a dead highwayman?” Luthias asked. “They’re just stories, aren’t they?” He looked to Morwyn for assurance. “They’re none of them true, are they?”
She gave him a half smile and banished all the ghosts. “That’s right,” she lied.